Recordings

2016 Classical Releases—The Last Word

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In the course of a year, I listen to more jazz on record and hear more classical music in the concert hall. That’s a matter of circumstances; I would prefer that were reversed, but there are few opportunities for me to write about live jazz, and jazz venues are generally unwelcoming to the those without prestige credentials.. The New York Classical Review, or the other hand, gives me the opportunity to cover classical music performances, and before I started writing there, classical music venues were always been open to me as an independent critic.

This is the context for my relationship with recordings. While I’d prefer to get more of my jazz live, recordings are necessary to hear new musicians, and hear what players who aren’t getting gigs are doing.

For classical music, recordings can be puzzling. For new music, recordings are a logical and necessary means to document expansion of the tradition—likewise recordings of obscure but worthwhile music (there is still a lot of stuff like that from the Renaissance and Baroque eras). But for the standard repertoire, it’s often unclear why recordings are made. Do we need more recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, more Chopin Preludes, more Vivaldi Concertos? No, we do it. But we get them anyway.

This is the staple of the last vestiges of the big record labels, like Deutsche Gramophone sign a new a star performer and put them through the cycle of recording all the appropriate standard works. It makes sense for unique talents like Daniil Trifonov, who has many new ideas about older pieces. It makes less sense for even spectacular talents like Yuja Wang, who gives music unbelievable life in concert, but is it not rethinking anything. For solid but unsurprising musicians like Yannick Nézet-Séquin, it makes no sense.

This is because classical music, despite common perceptions, is a living art. Like plays from the past, the art needs to be performed and experienced in the moment. The sense of occasion, community, and time in the concert hall is entirely different than in the living room, and music is also made an entirely different way in the recording studio. Nézet-Séquin, at his best, leads performances that are exemplary renditions of what’s on the page. At his best, this makes for another fine recording. but the classical music discography general is clogged with fine recordings, and reissues are the best recordings from the past are plentiful and cheap.

So again, why make these, and why listen to them? Because Trifonov appears to be a musician of historical greatness, and it is exciting to witness him discovering his own thoughts about the tradition. Same is true for Murray Perahia’s CD of Bach’s French Suites-not only is his playing superb but his thinking is fresh (this recording was made for Sony as part of Perahia’s exploration of Bach, but the label dropped him without release it, and DG picked it up).

But even with exciting musicians like Trifonov and Igor Levitt, most of what comes from the big labels is exactly what you expect: more Brahms, more collections of arias, more cross-overs. Classical music is where the independent labels are more interesting, and more important, than in any other genre. Here are my continuing favorites with their best releases from 2016 and early 2017.

Harmonia Mundi is the home for some of the finest musicians in classical music and well-chosen repertory. This is where you’ll find recordings of Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s operas and Bach’s Passions, led by René Jacobs, that are among the finest and most important ever made and that should be part of your music library. The label is also where you’ll hear the fresh intelligence of musicians like fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, baritone Matthias Goerne, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Jerusalem String Quartet, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. They put out a substantial number of period performance practice recordings, and also the beautiful contemporary choral music of Craig Hella Johnson. Here are some of the finest recent releases:

Bridge, founded by guitarist David Starobin, maintains a catalogue of under-represented common practice period composers, and specialized in comprehensive series from modern and contemporary composers. The most important of these is their recordings of music by Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe’s music comes out of early 20th century European modernism, but is really unclassifiable. He could write atonally, he could use popular music, theatrical elements, pretty much anything. His work is imaginative, expressive, made with refined, strong structures, and full of surprises. He was one of the finest composers of the 20th century, and had an important influence as a teacher once he emigrated to America. Other recommended series and 2016 releases:

ECM, while not originally a classical label, has now pioneered a new music style that is predominantly tonal, and mixes pre-baroque, minimalism, and improvisation, either as a collection or as a synthesis. And through contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Pärt, they’ve used their New Series to explore both modern and common practice period repertory. While the results have been inconsistent—there’s some recordings of 19th and early 20th century music that are surprisingly poor, while Andras Schiff’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas cycle is full of fascinating thinking and draws one back again and again, and Gidon Kremer’s two collections of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg have made an extraordinarily strong case for the composer—the label has completely filled the classical music niche that Nonesuch used to fill, and continues to expand in both the standard repertory and such extra-classical composed music as by Anouar Brahem and Tigran Mansurayn.

Winter & Winter is an addendum, but worth noting. Their classical releases are few but extremely well-chosen. They’ve produced interesting, but non-essential, recordings of modern and avant-garde music played by accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, but of late have become the home for two major artists, Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahamsen. Their two Abrahamsen releases, Schnee and let me tell you, and Hannigan’s recording of Satie’s Socrate are must-haves.

Best Reanimations 2016

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The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.

The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.

(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)

(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)

For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:

Classical

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There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.

Jazz

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  • Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
  • The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
  • Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
  • UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this): Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
  • Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition/Lenox Avenue Breakdown/Illusions/Blythe Spirit. Four albums on two CDs, for $20. Lenox and Illusions are two of the greatest albums of the post-fusion era, testaments to the beautifully creative and vital music made on the Loft Jazz scene.
  • Searching for You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (1958–1974). On Resonance, Zev Feldman produced two important archival releases this year, covering Larry Young and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had his hand in this one too, and there’s little this year I enjoyed as much.

Everything Else

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  • Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
  • Machine Gun: Jimi Hendrix: The Filmore East First Show 12/31/1969. The complete first set of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. An amazing performance and unintended culmination of Jimi’s musical world: blues, soul, funk, and rock.
  • Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
  • Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.

2016 Notes and Tones

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After listening to what is now close to 500 recordings with a 2016 release date, I feel like I’ve discovered some themes. Some of this is the elusive zeitgeist, what is on the minds of musical artists; some is longer term trends having to do with technology and pop culture; some may just be coincidence. But all were noticeable and satisfied my arbitrary criteria for a sample size.

Jeff Parker

Nothing sub rosa here, Parker has been around for a while and has been one of most interesting guitarists on the scene, creating his own niche in between jazz, rock, neo-soul, and improvised music. He’s living testament that there’s no real line between the popular and the avant-garde in African-American music, it’s all on a spectrum, and a pretty compact one at that.

His album The New Breed (International Anthem) made the most noise this year, and it is solid. I don’t love it though; the intentionally fragmented nature, while interesting, doesn’t really satisfy—the record wants to be both experimental and neatly controlled, and those are contradictory goals.

But there are two other recordings to his credit that are fine. One is a seemingly modest but actually deep solo record, Slight Freedom (Eremite), which has Parker exploring his own fascinating art. The other is drummer Matt Mayhall’s Tropes (Skirl), a tight, strong debut based around the trio of Mayhall, bassist Paul Bryan, and Parker (with various guests). Parker’s contributions are integral to the success of the disc, which is the best jazz debut of the year, and my regrets that I did not get this out of the pile for listening until after the deadline for Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll. Both these are strongly recommended and on my extended list for best new releases.

Guitars

There’s been a longer term trend in the proliferation of terrific guitarists—and please don’t think of just jazz. Many of them play jazz, but they are playing in every sort of style and tradition Some are relatively new on the scene, others are established, and they keep putting out one solid record after another (or, like Parker, are important sidemen on other musicians’ records). Here are recordings from guitarists that I enjoyed this year and recommend:

Ask me on a different day, and any and all of these could be on my list of 52.

Singers

First, I want to express some disappointment. As someone with a man-crush on Kurt Elling, his appearance on Branford Marsalis’ Upward Spiral never captured my attention, and I find his Christmas disc hard going. But there were other fine releases from singers that had the balance of artistry and creativity that I seek—I want my singers to be good musicians! Try these, they are all terrific:

Seriously swinging, musical singing from all the above. Everyone should hear Bertault sing “The Peacocks“ in French.

Labels

This was a strong year for Sunnyside records. I have several of their releases in my top 52, and you’ll find a couple of the vocalists there. Other keepers are Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry’s duet album, Proximity, Dan Blake’s tough-as-nails The Digging, and two records with a south of the Trump wall flavor, Edward Simon’s Latin American Songbook, and Argentum from Carlos Franzetti.

ECM is by default one of the major labels, but their output this year took nothing for granted and was impressive even by their consistent standards. I do go against some of the consensus favorites, like Michael Formanek’s The Distance, which I found wan, but they had a run of fine records in that typical ECM style that carved out a space between improvisation and contemporary classical control. Along with the release on my best of list:

ECM also had several excellent classical and new music releases, those you will find in a forthcoming post.

52 Pick-Up: Best NewMusic 2016

52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.

I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.

(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)

Ambient/Drone

Classical

Electronic

Improvisation

Jazz/Blues

New Classical

Popular Styles

Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.

Best Jazz Releases of 2016

Let me qualify that header before things get out of control here: this not only snapshot of constantly shifting thoughts, but specifically conforms to the ballot Francis Davis sent out for his 11th annual Jazz Critics Poll. Despite NPR losing interest in jazz, they are still going to host the poll, the results of which will be up sometime in December. So I guess that’s something.

Now, one explanation and one major caveat. My experience with these releases—what led me to choose and rank them—is that, among the bevy of fine new jazz recordings I’ve heard this year (at least 200), these are the ones that completely satisfied me without any critical thought. I mean this in the best way; I listened but gave myself over completely to the music, and trusted each and every moment to bring me musically and logically to the next. The music occupied my mind and body. That’s my highest level of response.

The caveat is that the list goes roughly from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. I have not been able to listen through everything I’ve gotten so far this year (there’s at least 96 hours of music still unheard) and due to release dates there are certain things that I trust will be important that have not yet reached me, especially Strut Records new compilation of Sun Ra’s singles, and Mosaic’s Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49. Look for them in my upcoming full year-end lists, or else in the ballot I fill out for Downbeat next spring. And so, I give you:

10 best new releases (albums released between last Thanksgiving and this, give or take) listed in descending order one-through-ten.

1 Kris Davis, Duopoly (Pyroclastic)

 

2 James Brandon Lewis Trio, No Filter (BNS Sessions)

3 Brian Charette, Once & Future (Posi-Tone)

4 Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12)

 

5 Ches Smith, The Bell (ECM) (No official video or streaming audio available)
6 Eric Revis Trio, Crowded Solitudes (Clean Feed)

7 Henry Threadgill, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)

 

8 Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta, Upward (Big Weezus)

 

9 Robin Eubanks Mass Line Big Band, More Than Meets the Ear (Artist Share)

10 Jaimeo Brown Transcendence, Work Songs (Motema)

 

Top-three Reissues or Historical albums, again listed in descending order.

1  Miles Davis Quintet, Freedom Jazz Dance (Sony)

2  Peter Erskine Trio, As it Was (ECM)

3  Arthur Blythe, Lennox Avenue Breakdown/In the Tradition/Bush Baby/Blythe Spirit (BGO Records)

Year’s best Vocal album.

Camila Meza, Traces (Sunnyside)

 

Best Debut album.

I did not hear a debut album this year that left a strong impression on me.

Best Latin jazz album.

Brian Lynch, Madera Latino, (Holistic MusicWorks)

(Not So) Simple Music for a Complicated Time

Ram—on Casas Erik Satie (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre), 1891 oil on canvas, 198.8 x 99.7 cm (78 1/4 x 39 1/4) Northwestern University Library

Ram—on Casas
Erik Satie (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre), 1891
oil on canvas, 198.8 x 99.7 cm (78 1/4 x 39 1/4)
Northwestern University Library

No composer is as loved for all the wrong reasons (there must be a German word for that) than Erik Satie.

Now that we are in his sesquicentennial year (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925), promiscuous love is erupting all over. This listicle is indicative; no need to look past the title “Composer Erik Satie Was So Much Weirder Than You Realize”—Satie as an object for those who make a fetish of an eccentricity or quirkiness that stands in opposition to their consumerism.

I imagine Satie would have enjoyed that attention, though in his particular irreverent and ironic way. Quite the opposite of eccentric, he was acutely aware of his audiences and his social milieu, and had the calculating self-consciousness to present himself to differently to each audience asthe bohemian, the mystic, the bourgeois master. Those were guises, uniforms, and they continue to effect those who lack the curiosity to hear the music itself. And I do mean hear: another complete misapprehension is that Satie created simple background music, like a naïve outsider artist.

Satie was a skilled composer who put in the hard hours. His music is made with exceptional rigor—the apparent simplicity is a challenge to pull off. Repetition of minimal material is the easiest thing to do as a composer and one of the hardest things to do well, and to make interesting.

He is both graced with and suffers from music that Virgil Thomson said “…can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the history of music.” The result is that millions and millions of people have heard and loved the Gymnopédies, or an arrangement of the Gnossiennes on the soundtrack of Diva, and maybe a few tens of thousands of people have heard one piece beyond that (His catalogue is substantial. Maybe a few thousand have listened through all this works).

Satie, the pop-cult figure, was also Satie, the serious and important artist. As anniversary seasons tend to do in classical music, this one has seen a good number of new and collected releases that treat his legacy seriously and show many different facets of his work. (I recommend the Erik Satie volume in Reaction Book’s Critical Lives series as a fine, compact biographical and critical introduction.)

Because we all know them, the Gymnopédies are the place to start. Even already interested listeners will likely be surprised to find that there is an interpretive argument over this music, that seems so lovely and simple. The nub is captured by the title of a relatively recent release, Satie Slowly.

Satie Slowly

This is a fascinating collection of piano pieces put out by Philip Corner, who makes the argument that musicians, like the great Aldo Ciccolini, have been playing Satie too fast for decades. And technically he’s not wrong. The tempo most commonly heard from pianists is moderato, a kind of slow stroll. Yet the markings for the Gymnopédies are, respectively, lent et douloureux, lent et triste, lent et grave. Faster tempos brighten the music, and while that is pleasing in and of itself, Satie wanted sadness and seriousness, there can be no argument over that.

 

 

The flaw in Corner’s recording is that he is not that good a pianist, he can demonstrate the argument but he can’t quite make it work; playing slowly is more difficult than playing quickly, it means phrasing, not agility, has to work, and phrasing is the thing that separates the greats from the also-rans.

Jeroen van Veen is a great pianist who has no such problems with Satie. He has recorded all of Satie’s piano music on the Brilliant Classics label, and it is fantastic, superseding all previous collections, including those from Ciccolini (yes, I have loved it too) and more recent ones from Jean-Yves Thibaudet, et al. At $8.99 for digital (CDs are also available), it is also the finest value in the Satie discography.

Van Veen plays the music slowly, more slowly than Corner, with exceptionally graceful, limpid phrasing. Each line and the accompanying counterpoint flows along like a gentle, mesmerizing country stream, rippling steadily. In great sound, this set is utterly gorgeous and completely fulfilling, making and winning the implicit argument that this is all great music.

Van Veen has also accomplished the seemingly impossible, of producing a complete recording of Vexations, all 840 repetitions, sitting at and playing the piano straight through for 23 hours and 51 minutes.

This may seem a stunt, the piece a gimmick, and some people think so. An article at Hyperallergic, “Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane” takes as its premise that the music is nothing but an effect. But it’s a report on a rumor, something someone heard about, like taking an urban myth seriously. It’s about an attitude about Vexations, because the writer has never experienced the entire work.

If the music was ever to drive anyone mad, is was Satie himself. Written in the difficult aftermath of a failed love affair, it is tonal but unsettled, packed with diminished chords and with a solo theme that hints at constant modulation. This harmonic ambiguity, free of Wagnerian drama and without inherent meaning, is the epitome of Satie’s art. The command of 840 repetitions is a natural part of his irreverence, and there is more than a little wisdom in the idea of constant repetition of a harmless, meaningless task as a way to soothe the mind and soul. It turns out to be surprisingly easy and pleasurable to have Vexations playing for 24 hours—the music not only is lovely, but the constant flow makes for an actual realization of the musique d’ameublement concept, especially because the digital files are played from an object that is part of our contemporary furniture.

There are other excellent new recordings of Satie. Noriko Ogawa’s first volume of Satie’s piano music (on the Bis label), has something of a superficial gimmick: she plays the music on Satie’s own piano. But like Corner and van Veen, she has thought this through.

Her approach is the fast one, and it is superb and absolutely convincing. Ogawa’s approach to rhythm—different than any I’ve heard with Satie—shows how to make a quicker pace work. Like van Veen, her phrasing is terrific, and Satie’s piano turns out to be far drier than the one’s contemporary ears are used to, as well as far drier than those heard on other Satie recordings (you’d think that Satie indicated reverb in all his scores for the way they are engineered). All these elements combine in a view that is a revelation for the composer’s construction of rhythm and pulse; his scores often eschewed bar lines, and Ozawa’s is pretty much the only playing I’ve heard that makes the music sound that way. This is essential as Van Veen’s take.

Satie also wrote songs, many of them stepping out of the classical tradition and into the popular styles as they existed in the theater and dance hall in turn of the century Paris. He also wrote Socrate, a work for voice and piano (or voice and orchestra) he ironically called a “Symphonic drama.” It may be better known as the springboard for John Cage’s Cheap Imitations (Cage was a deep admirer of Satie and made a two-piano arrangement of Socrate).

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Soprano Barbara Hannigan has recorded the piece, accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw, and it is another exceptional new release in the Satie discography (Reaching this point, I’ve reached the conclusion that there was a consensus in the musical zeitgeist to rethink Satie, go back to his core, and present him anew, and van Veen, Ogawa, and Hannigan have made that happen). This is a lovely recording all around, sung and played with simple grace, and it filled out by two other sets of songs and by Hymne. Absolutely recommended on its own qualities, not just for the value of hearing some of Satie’s vocal music.

These new recordings don’t invalidate the older ones, Ciccolini and Pascal Rogé still deliver pleasures. And Sony has dug through their considerable back catalogue and put out a superb 13 CD collection, Erik Satie & Friends – Original Albums Collection. This is one of the most enjoyable archival releases of the past few years. It is Satie, with a generous helping of piano, vocal, and orchestral music, and friends (or at least colleagues); there are pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Ibert, Milhaud, and others, with the special highlight being Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was indeed a true friend, and he is represented both as composer and artist, playing his own piano music and that of Satie.

Those albums are particularly wonderful, but so is everything else in one way or another. There is something special about hearing the great pianist Robert Casadesus and his wife Gaby playing Satie, or Regine Crespin singing his songs. Those performances represent how at one time the composer was at the core of the modern, and especially French, repertory. The new thinking noted above should bring about his return.

If you’re in New York December 13, you can catch Anthony de Mare and other pianists presenting “The Velvet Gentleman: Eric Satie at 150,” at the Sheen Center

The Year in Mahler 2016

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What a year. There are more concerts to come, but my experience hearing Simon Rattle lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler 6 Monday night at Carnegie put a cap on a run of unforgettable performances. Read my review of last night at the New York Classical Review here, and catch up on these reviews from earlier in the year of New York Philharmonic performances: Mahler 6 with Semyon Bychkov, Mahler 9 with Bernard Haitink, Das Lied von der Erde (and Sibelius 7) with Alan Gilbert.

Sharing reviews is always tinged with the frustration of not being able to share the experience, nor of recalling anything but the memory of an overall impact. But there’s a welcome exception: the Philharmonic has released a digital recording from the Bychkov/Mahler 6 run, and it is as great as my memories, one of the finest performances of the symphony you’ll hear. You can stream it/buy it from iTunes, or do the same at Amazon, where the audio is better. Note that the cover image has Gilbert’s name, but it’s Bychkov conducting.

 

Absolutely, Totally, Mozart

This might be something like the experience of buying a multi-volume encyclopedia in days of yore: you didn’t know you needed it until you saw and coveted it, then there it sat on your bookshelf, admired by visitors yet rarely visited by yourself.

This is something different though: Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition (200 CD Box Set). This is something you will actually open up and play and enjoy through the years.

Yes, it’s expensive, and cost alone is an issue. So is it a value?

  • 200 discs for $410 = $2.05/disc, which is only slightly more than the per track cost of the latest pop hit.
  • Actual cost can be lower than $410, which is the Amazon price as of this writing. Presto Classical has it for $344, but shipping costs are high. Amazon UK has this for the best price (again as of this writing); with shipping included the price in USD is around $350. That’s $1.75/disc.
  • That per disc value only matters if the contents are, well, valuable to the consumer. And if you want a complete Mozart box, the Brilliant Classics one is $169 and it’s quite good, full of solid recordings. Is this box 1.5 – 2 times better?81os0jbut3l-_sl1500_

In my critical opinion—as long as you wish to have recordings of all of Mozart’s works—it is:

I have not heard the whole set (and am certain no one will be sending me a promo), but I am familiar with a substantial number of the recordings collected—there is a PDF of the CD contents here.

The first thing to note is that there is a heavy emphasis on period performance. The box collects Symphonies from the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Baroque Soloists, and a handful of others, all excellent ensembles (the bulk comes from Trevor Pinnock’s excellent English Concert recordings). There are also the fortepiano Piano Concerto recordings with Malcolm Bilson and Robert Levin, which are full of improvisation and are absolutely essential.

There are also some period performance recordings of the operas, but not exclusively so, and here is where the virtues of the box are most clearly represented. This is a Decca release,  but Decca is currently under the ownership of UMG, which also owns Deutsche Grammaphon, Archiv, etc, which means that they have a superior, rich catalogue to choose from. Here are some of the opera recordings included:

  • La finta giardiniera, Mozarteum-Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager
  • Zaide, Staatskapelle Berlin, Bernhard Klee
  • Idomeneo, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
  • Le nozze di Figaro, Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra, Arnold Östman
  • Don Giovanni, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séquin
  • Così fan tutte, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Georg Solti
  • Die Zauberflöte, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado

These are the best versions in the company’s archives, no matter the philosophy, mixing period and modern performances.

There are also many CDs with what are labeled “Classic” and “Historical” performances, so the piano works from Uchida and Brendel are augmented by Gulda and Haskil and Horowitz, the Symphonies are duplicated through a handful of Karl Böhm’s recordings, which at their best are fabulous. And these just scratch the surface of material that is supplemental to the core purpose, but generous and essential for delivering insight into the legacy of recording Mozart; there are 7 CDs of classic aria performances, there is the complete Erich Kleiber Figaro, which may be no longer essential but is incredibly musical. There are 3 CDs of music meant for private performance, 21 CDs of fragments, music that Mozart arranged (his own and others), and incomplete works finished by others, and a further 7 of what are labeled “Doubtful Works.” (Five hours of the music included has been recorded new just for the set.)

So yes, this is the one, complete not only in that it presents all of Mozart that is in common practice, but complete in that it is every work that the man produced, and with multiple views of some of the most notable ones. Documentation includes of a new Kochel guide.

This is a lifetime supply of the greatest musical art. Available October 28.

P.S. In the spirit of less perhaps being more, I also strongly recommend the upcoming release of Teodor Currentzis’ latest Mozart opera recordingDon Giovanni. Currentzis is the only conductor who is as interesting as René Jacobs in Mozart, and his style and ideas are dramatically different and equally rewarding.

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Glass Totems

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Along with Steve Reich, another major American composer is turning 80 this year: Philip Glass. There are no ongoing celebrations of his life and work, though that’s nothing to regret.

Glass has always had a rare, extensive appeal into popular culture, and his career was buttressed by last year’s memoir, Words Without Music, which is full of fascinating insights into his ideas, his work, and the general task of living in modern America as a (once) avant-garde artist. (Of the latter, the book usefully outlines how his best earliest audiences were theater, dance, and visual artists, not musicians and music lovers, and that foundation helped advance his profile.)

He’s also had a prolific at sometime unfocussed career. His sound is both familiar and inimitable, except by himself, and there’s sufficient music in his catalog that sounds enough like other of his works that one can feel a comfortable but soporific response to his music. At the same time, his style and ideas have developed and changed through the years, especially this century.

All this is exceedingly well documented, especially now that his own imprint, Orange Mountain Music, has been releasing previously obscure recordings from early in his career when his music had an exhilaratingly relentless focus on one thing, when it was truly avant-garde, taking classical ideas of counterpoint and voice leading to their ultimate extremes.

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Along with the early music, Orange Mountain has put out an affordable collection of his 10 symphonies. I heard all these works gradually as they were issued, and my attention waned in proportion to the increasing numbers, but having them together brings this body of work into greater prominence. While I still feel his chugging rhythms don’t translate well to an orchestra (they don’t always work with his ensembles), there is a lot of good music here, tightly made despite the seeming sprawl. While I’m still on the fence about the programmatic symphonies, this convinces me that Glass is the natural musical descendent of Bruckner.

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His recordings on Nonesuch are necessary, but the previous 10 disc retrospective Glass Box is currently out of print and at aftermarket markups (and the set of his film scores has disappeared, presumably bought up by Orange Mountain). There’s a new, different box coming out October 28, The Complete Sony Recordings, and while this has some looseness appropriate to his career, it also has some of his most important music: the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten (the finest recording of the first and the sole recordings of the others), Glassworks, and other important theater works, it’s essentially the core of his theatrical work, and recommended if you don’t already have these in your library. (Importcds has the best pre-order price as of this writing.)

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And there’s still more, especially the great early works (which outside the operas are my favorites): a new release with the European ensemble Cluster playing Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Similar Motion, and Music in Changing Parts, and the third version of the Glass Ensemble’s own performances of Music in 12 Parts.